Cleanup on Aisle Three

As the Lenten Season begins, I give thanks for several things. First, I give thanks that God is out of the smiting business. Second, I give thanks that I know the end of this story. (Spoiler Alert: The end of the story is Resurrection.)

For all the people who talk about the Old Testament God who smites wrongdoing and wrongdoers, who turns people to salt, and feeds them to whales and banishes them from the garden, let a collective “whew, that was close” ring out. Our story does not end there. Even though there are some among us who have taken upon themselves the role of the smiter and banisher, essentially assuming the role of the angry God who burns witches and crucifies the righteous; they are not the end of the story either.

A colleague poured out his heart in a letter to his church. In his first draft he used the word “punitive” in describing the actions passed by the recent General Conference. I encouraged him to drop the punitive language. I was wrong. Punitive is just the right word to describe what happened. In fact, everything that happened felt punishing. You have heard it said, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Today, I say to you, “That is entirely wrong; words are our greatest instrument of harm.”

Now it appears that the church is in clean up mode, working to find language that mitigates the harm done, working to keep the ship upright until the tides turn. Damage control takes energy and thoughtfulness. Sad that our time will be spent in something that should not have happened in the first place. Clean up is something we do with untrained puppies. Clean up is what they do at Walmart when a bottle breaks on aisle three. There is broken glass, and wine is spilling out over all the floor like blood.

We will be known for our deeds. We will be known in our words, our actions and our countenances. In the Lenten Season we are invited to the Great Examen. Where have I failed and fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbor as myself? Where have I been the one who denied grace to another human being? Only when I clean up my own life will I be able to clean up someone else’s.

For all the years I lived at home, I shared a bedroom with my sister. We had twin beds, a dresser apiece, and about half of the area of the room. One of us was messy. The other was neat. (She was the neat one… Confession 101). Often we drew an imaginary line between our beds to mark our hypothetical turf. We would avoid each other, shame each other, mock each other, but at the end of the day the imaginary wall between us would go away. When we realized that our spat was actually over fairly temporary and silly things, and that we had underlying deep love for one another, we could lay it down, and lie down in our little beds under the same ceiling.

Real clean up involves confession and repentance and forgiveness. Reformation and transformation are hard work. But that’s the business God is in; it’s called grace. Let us not be afraid. God is with us. Thank God for God!

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Living the Bible or The Living Bible?

In 2008, a young writer, an officially, though non-practicing Jew struck out to live the Bible. Literally. Every rule and admonition. Old and New Testaments. A.J. Jacob’s book, The Year of Living Biblically, is an honest and humorous telling of his experience of living the Bible in the context of a 21st century world. While I laughed out loud at some of it, I most appreciated some of his closing thoughts reflecting on his year of living the Bible in conversations he had with his rabbi friend. The conversation is found on pages 328 and 329. Rabbi Robbie says:

            “We can’t insist that the Bible marks the end of our relationship with God. Who are we to say that the Bible contained all the wisdom? If you insisted that God revealed himself only at one time, at one particular place, using these discrete words, and never at any time other than that – that in itself is a kind of idolatry.”

Jacobs says, “You can commit idolatry on the Bible itself. You can start to worship the words instead of the spirit.”  How do we meet God in the middle? How do we hear the words in the spirit of their meaning without hurting each other and harming the church?

The spirit of the words is different than the letter of the law. Faithful discernment includes measuring the words alongside what we know is the nature of God. What we know about God is also Biblical: God is good. God is love. God is a covenant maker. God keeps promises. God does not leave us alone, but shelters us in the storms. God’s Living Word calls us over and over into right relationship – with God and with one another and all creation. How then can we justify the rancor and discord we are living today across the spectrum of culture and church?

God’s word is dynamic, never static, but always blowing through us and all creation the breath of life that is love and mercy, justice and grace. This is the spirit of the living word; this is the nature of God that is revealed in Jesus the Christ. Count me as one who hopes to hear a word of life from the Bible and from the trees and flowers that praise God from my back yard this morning. Let us see with new eyes and open hearts how we are called to sing a new song. We who believe that the living word is a loving word will rise up to tell good news that is for everyone born!

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Oh, Jesus.. You Knew It All Along

This weekend has been glorious and tomorrow is Transfiguration Sunday! We have climbed already to the mountaintop. Last night children we love spent the night with us. Their very presence was incredible blessing. They had such news… study of the failure of the Roman Empire and stories of a new dog who chewed everything and their hopes for toe shoes in a little while and a youth outing at a trampoline park. What joy to do simple things in the pouring down rain watching old movies and eating cheeseburgers. Oh, Jesus, you knew it all along that welcoming children was key to abundant life and great joy.

Today, new neighbors moved into the house across the street. She grows and tends orchids. He is a bookseller. Their dog if the same dog General Patton had. Well not same actual dog, but the breed with the pointy ears and the proud nose bridge. For three years the house across the street has been empty. No lights. No life. We saw the moving truck and went to welcome them. Probably stayed too long, but oh, Jesus, you knew that we were called to welcome the stranger and to love our neighbor.

This evening we sat under the winter stars looking at the night and seeing the constellations people have seen from the beginning. Orion’s belt, that I named as a child : Inky, Red, Stripy – the cats and dogs of my childhood that I would remember every time I saw them in the winter sky. Oh, Jesus, you knew it all along that we would need signs… signs of your kingdom on earth as in heaven.

This weekend – the children – the neighbors – the stars – their very goodness and blessing stand in my heart and prayer this night. That goodness is in such contrast to what has happened in the world around me this week. The church I love is sad in the aftermath of a conference where different voices and cultures, mores, enlightenments, and understandings from lands far and near have left so many unsettled and uncertain about our future.

Oh, Jesus, you must have known the same strife as you spoke to those in your time who heard Scripture in legalistic ways, holding faster to the words of a particular circumstance than to the people who gathered, those with whom you had relationship,  those to whom you spoke words of welcome and inclusion, forgiveness, mercy and grace. “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Oh, Jesus, what the lepers and the marginalized and the heavy laden must have felt in their hearts and lives when they heard you speak grace… the great exhale of fear… the great inhale of love.

Oh, Jesus, you would have known we would be small in understanding what God’s love really means. You died at the hands of those who did not understand. Your story is not yet finally told. We in the middle hope. We are telling that story now, we who are climbing up the mountain with you. And we will pitch a tent and wait to see you.

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A Day That Will Live in Infamy

This title is not an original phrase. It was spoken by FDR in response to Pearl Harbor being bombed by the Japanese army in December of 1941. Yet on this day, February 26, 2019, something about this phrase seems just right. Today the body of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to approve a traditional plan (I can’t even capitalize the name of it because I am so very disappointed) which leaves in place a decades old statement which allows that “self-avowing homosexuals”  – who are of “sacred worth”, have no place in Ordained Ministry in the United Methodist Church, no place to live who they are – with the blessing of the church – in marriage, and pretty much anything else they are called to.

“God is not pleased.” This is another quote that is not my own. It is statement of a child in my church who spoke it on Stewardship Sunday to call a people into greater response to God’s call to generosity. I wonder if God is pleased with what our General Conference decided today?

I watched the live streaming for all three days. Powerful worship and prayers. Challenging technology – which is always the case. I heard all sides. This morning there was a woman who stood with her Bible and her Scriptures armed for bear. She read from Matthew… I think. But when I went to look for what she read – I know it started with divorce, but she transitioned to a piece that somehow supported her biblical stance against homosexuality (which is not actually a word in the Koine Greek of the New Testament.). I got so lost in Matthew, in the verses that speak a word of warning: beware of practicing your piety before others, do not judge that you may not be judged, beware of false prophets, then a word of grace – you have heard it said, but I say to you… love one another as I have loved you. I never could find her reference.

My mentor at Meredith College used to speak wisdom to us. He would say, “Sincere, but mis-guided.” Where did we lose the majority verses for the minority?

For most of my life, I have known and loved homosexual people. My freshman year in college in 1964, I had wonderful friends who could not be who they were because of prejudices against them and fears of repercussion. My children had friends who were homosexual. Two of my dearest parishioners were homosexual. I have worked in ministry with homosexuals whom I love dearly. Their names and faces are running through my prayers tonight. They must be hurting tonight; forgive us, dear friends.

The motions and amendments to level the playing field, motions to call out adultery and divorce and infidelity and fornication which are mentioned frequently in the gospels, all those motions were defeated by very small margins. Lord, we need a lot of self-examination if we can joyfully proof-text the Bible, and cherry-pick our Discipline for the purposes of self- preservation and false piety.

Over 30 years ago I sat in a Bible Study where a very famous teacher was reading some of the Pauline texts about divorce and extolling her own virtue and the sanctity of her own marriage. Women all over the room were quietly getting up and walking out of the room in tears. I thought right then, this is not what Jesus would do. This is not what God would want.

We Methodists have much yet to reckon with. Tonight we have gone down in history alongside the Episcopalians and Presbyterians who have gone down before us. Here is where I land: I made a promise to God a long time ago that if I err, I will err on the side of Grace. That is my faith. At this point the church I love not only stands outside the law of the United States of America, I think it stands on the wrong side of history. Furthermore, I think we stand outside of the oneness and welcome Christ calls us to. Tonight, I am praying for forgiveness and healing. God help us all. Amen.

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A Gaggle of Girls

Warm February afternoons bring the neighborhood children out to play. Laughter rings out and bikes are everywhere in the cul-de-sac like it’s Daytona. Sunset comes early even on warm February days. But the rituals of summer are alive even in this month that is still winter.

Robert Benson asks the question, “Where do you want to be when the sun goes down?” We have lived that answer on porches and decks, facing west with a glass of wine and pleasant conversation for over 53 years. This is the place where the neighborhood children came to visit. In the late afternoon sun, a gaggle of girls stood at the back gate. One of them, now nine years old, is tall enough to lift the latch on the gate.

We hear a small voice call out, “Can we come in and see your flowers?” We have few February flowers, but regardless the season, there is welcome for this gaggle of girls. Now they are laughing their joy and skipping down the brick path to where we are sitting. “Those red blooms on the bushes are camellias. The little yellow flowers are winter jasmine. The little purple flowers that are so fragrant are daphne.” The girls heard and nodded with glee. This little back yard soiree was glad even in the February dreariness.

Conversation turned to other things. School and teachers. Homework and who had the flu. Details of ordinary childhood days were shared like we were holding a summit of world leaders. There was talking, and there was a good dose of listening to the stories of the children. What are their hopes? What are their dreams?

They want to sing again with the little guitar strumming songs that are familiar to them. They want to learn about music and hear stories of the olden days. They want to know our age and why we come out in the afternoons to watch the sun set. “Look up at the sky,” we said. “Soon you will begin to see the stars come out. You can make a wish on the first star you see. Look at that little sliver of moon. If you look every night, you can see it grow and grow, then disappear for a few days. Look at the vapor trails of the airplanes. See how big the sky is, even in the city. Wonder where those people are going?”

They marveled as if they had never seen the sky like that before. One of the older ones said, “You know the airplanes are really flying on this side of the moon, don’t you?” (a little taste of rational thought amidst the delight of wondering.) They marveled that even in a little winter garden, there were still a few flowers showing off.

Too soon gaggles of girls, and all of us outgrow many of the delights of wonder and marvel. We want answers instead of questions. We want to know, as if we ever really can. Part of the spiritual journey we all are called to is to become children again – gaggles of girls and boys – to enter mystery and marvel in that realm of all that is Unknown to us. “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” Jesus says. When we set our minds on temporary things, we deny the grace we are offered in Christ.

In a couple of weeks, the United Methodist Church will gather to make huge decisions that will effect all of us who call ourselves United Methodist. I wish all the decision makers could sit on my back deck with the gaggle of girls from my neighborhood and remember again the call to hold question and mystery in the great grace that is Jesus. Open the gate to joy and delight for all God’s children and live with wonder the gift that is ours in the church. Err on the side of hospitality. Err on the side of grace.

When the story of us is written, will history record that entrenchment and ideology separated us – like it did when the church split over slavery? Or will we write a new song, one born in Baptism and watered in love. Who do we want to be when the sun goes down? Let us open the gate to a bigger way of being the church. Amen.

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Lighting A Way

“Thy word in a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

These words from Psalm 119 are one verse of 176 verses that extol the decrees of the Lord on which the faithful psalmist meditates day and night. With hot indignation, the psalmist chastises the arrogant and the insolent. The psalmist extols the virtue of those “whose way is blameless, who keep God’s decree’s and seek God with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in God’s way.”

Jesus also talks about the way, the way, the truth and the life we are called to live in him. So what is Jesus’ way? What is the way of the one who proclaims, “ I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”?  Jesus knew the law of his religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees who walked around as Torah thumpers pointing to law as a don’t do this; don’t do that practice. Jesus’ way was the way of grace that said, “you say…. But I say…” Let them come. Come unto me. Let us love one another, for love is of God. Could it be that we have forgotten the call to love one another as we have been loved. Is love the way? Is grace the way?

The preacher stood to tell the congregation about A Way Forward and the General Conference that will take place at the end of this month. She was grace filled in talking about our differences and she called for breathing deeply and listening. At the end of the hour, a church member stood and asked where is the word of God in this discussion. Show me the passages. As an observer, I must say this question hit me as almost a rebuke of grace. (Note: I could be wrong.) Show me how the Bible is represented. Show me the law that says homosexuality is OK. That may not have been the speaker’s intent, but that is the tenor of what I heard.

In the early 1940s a German theologian, Nels Ferre, wrote a little book titled The Sun and the Umbrella. The thesis of his book is that too often we block the sun and its light with various umbrellas we raise. Ferre’s list of umbrellas is quite surprising. He lists the Bible as one of the umbrellas we raise in our religious piety that blocks the Light of God from our view. We stumble over the ore holding every verse with the same value as gold, while we miss the gold of true life, abundant life in the unity of the Spirit.

In my own family and my own experience there are such differences in the way we see the world and all the issues of contemporary life, without living grace, forgiveness, humility and love, we would barely be able to get through a Thanksgiving meal together, much less rise up to be the living witness of Christ for the world. Spirit of God, come down upon us. Guide us in your righteousness to that place of oneness in you. Heal our broken places and light our path with the Light that is You. Amen.

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Old Enough to Die

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her new book Natural Causes, opens her chapters with this basic thesis: Each of us born into this world is on a trajectory toward death. Ehrenreich’s thinking leads to a new acceptance of the human condition, from the point of science and logic. Her advice is: Eat the chocolate; drink the wine. Love the journey and don’t fool yourself into thinking extra time at the gym or on the jogging trail will extend what is yours to live, because, mortality is the direction of life on this planet. Now she is clear to say that we do not have an expiration date stamped on us; that would be too grim. But passing away, going to glory, breaking the bonds of mortal life will come to all of us; some of us sooner, and some of us later. End of story, and yet….

Before Christmas we attended the funeral of a friend whom we had known through business connections and various social circles for over 30 years. Tom was remembered for his goodness, his philanthropy, his love of the arts and his love of life. He died on a pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago trail from France into Spain. One of those who spoke said, “He began his walk in France and ended his walk in heaven.” The church was filled with his friends and business associates who chatted among themselves thanksgivings and remembrances of a good man.

Most people were gray-haired. Most were long time Raleigh folks, many of whom we recognized. I told my husband we look at each other seeing each other with memory-encoded eyes that see the youth and vitality of who we once were. Who in that church was old enough to die? Ehrenreich would say the answer is –  every one of us who was there, even those who had colored or bleached their hair and put on their pearls and denial heels so high they could hardly walk down the cobble brick walkway of the church.

Tom was a musician and lover of the arts. The music in the service was Mozart and Beethoven and pieces from The Planets. My heart swelled in the music of genius that was fairly short lived in the flesh. Mozart died in his 30s; Beethoven in his 50s, after living his last 15 years in deafness. Time to gray was not theirs; but fullness of life was. They were old enough to die, and their gift to the world goes on beyond their mortality. There is a lesson in this.

Words from John 14:1 – 6 were read.  Jesus’s promise and Good News to his disciples is found in the rest of John 14, beyond verse 6. Read it for yourself. Jesus is speaking farewell to his disciples. He tells them not to be afraid, because he is with them and will go before them to show them what is beyond this human life, a glorious eternity with God.  Jesus’ promise is glory beyond the losses and suffering of mortal life that can be harsh and unfair, too short and fraught with hurt and pain. And Jesus speaks into a truth that at some point we all will have to learn to live without each other.

Jesus also speaks a promise: “God will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will teach you everything and remind you of what I have said to you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid.”

Fear of death is more thief than death itself. We lose the life we have – a life to pilgrimage through a far away place – a life of loving our family and friends – a life of rejoicing in the light of the morning – a life of hope and prayer – when we are crippled with fear. Trusting the Alpha and Omega God and living every day a Resurrection life of joy crushes fear.

Love life. Celebrate family and friends.  Love the work we are called to do. Are we old enough to die? Vincent died at 6 months. Renee died at 6. Andrew died in third grade. Linda died in 6th grade. Cameron died at 10. Paisley at 19. Harold died in Viet Nam at 22. Marlee and Jim died in their 50s. Tom died at 71 living his passion on the Camino de Santiago. I could fill the page with names and ages of those whose time on this side of heaven is ended. I am thankful not to know the hour and time of death ahead of that moment, and I laugh at the notion of death when I see Tom’s mother making potato salad at 96.

I am surely old enough to die. My prayer today, like everyday is:

For this one day, if I never have another, I give thanks. Amen.

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One Small Child

There is a little boy whose name is Casey. He is barely three years old. One cold clear day he was out playing in his grandmother’s back yard near the woods with older cousins who, either got cold or tired, and decided to go inside. We don’t know the details, but we do know that the little boy did not go inside with the others. Grandmother was worried when, after calling and calling him, she could not find him. She called the police to help search.

And search they did. For about three days, S.B.I, F.B.I. and all kinds of local people looked and looked and could not find Casey. Temperatures dropped and rain came still they searched.  Just before hope began to wane, a woman walking her dog heard a tiny voice calling, “Mama.”

Casey was found tangled in vines and thorny brambles that grow in the woods of Craven County.  After a long three days, he was found alive.  Thanksgiving, relief, joy abounded in the finding of one small child.  He was reunited with his grateful family and taken to receive medical care for his scratches.

It was at the hospital that a remarkable story was told by little Casey. He told everyone that while he was lost in the woods, a bear came to take care of him. A bear. Black bears abound in the woods of Craven County, and many other counties in North Carolina. New Bern’s iconic mascot is the black bear  – as clearly seen from Highway 70 when you pass through town. It is not improbable that bears were around Casey in the woods.

What the little boy related, however, is more a story of miracle and mystery that henceforth will become fable and the truth of myth. Casey’s story will be told and told and heard and heard with acceptance and gratitude along with skepticism and question. What is true? What is real?

Miracles are documented across history. No, they don’t happen in every missing child incidence. That does not mean that miracle giving is the work of a capricious God. Nor does it mean that little Casey was loved any more than any other child of the world. Rather this miracle is a reminder that God is still with us, and will send angels to care for us when we are lost in the woods. God shows up in all shapes and sizes and people and creatures to remind us that all is well. Even in the darkest hour, in the scariest times, when all around seems very lost, God is here. Casey’s story is a reminder of that.

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Lead me Lord. Lead me in thy righteousness

Make thy way plain before my face. Your way, Lord. Jesus is your way. I have told you, O mortal, what is good…. And you didn’t get it. So I came down myself. In person. A small baby we might have missed except for those angels and that star and the shepherds and those wise men who came to see for themselves. Drat. It’s all public now. What are we to do with that?

Caesar, let’s build a wall to keep all those people away. Mitch, let’s get all the judges lifetime appointments…. Oh, yeah, only those who agree with Caesar. Oh, and let us close the government. That’ll show them what’s don’t agree with us. And let’s split up the church into permanent solutions to temporary problems.

Events of my day Sunday lead me to this post… Wonderful worship with a message of Epiphany and looking forward to a future with hope and joy, after coming out of a reprimand about how some of us might not be open enough to all people, even snow people who just want to be the snow they are.

Two thoughts cross my mind tonight. One from Richard Rohr this morning, “Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary tests in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty.” You have heard it said, but I say to you, Jesus said…

Jesus learned Scripture well. The Sunday psalm, Psalm 72 in verses 11 – through 14 speak to the way, the truth and the life we are called to in Christ. “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” How much of the blood of the innocents will smear our history?

I have a friend who says if we knew nothing more of God than Micah 6:8, we would do good in the world. Justice. Kindness. Humility. I think Jesus might say, follow me in that way. Leave the petty piety and haughty self-righteousness behind. Follow the star and never look back.

My computer is not on fire. My spell check is giving me a break. The grammar police are not out. My heart is at peace. For it is Thou, Lord, thou Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety. Amen.







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Dear Aaron Sorkin

Dear Aaron Sorkin,

My little letter to you will likely end up in a pile of letters from people all over the country who are begging you to write another series like The Newsroom, or The West Wing, and now even Atticus Finch on Broadway, stories of a flawed protagonist who is out to right the world and fix whatever inner demons that plague them. We all love a protagonist.

Recently we have watched both of the shows again, this time with greater appreciation for the prescience of your writing, that was not just a retelling of truth, but almost a prophecy set against what is currently going on in our political discourse, our current events, and our cultural divide, even in the church. How did you know we would need your voice told in the fictional characters what were so believable we wanted them to be real?

Morality has been co-opted in cheap talk and high-hatted-ness that separates good from good with the intent of making the other look bad. It’s the playground stuff of choosing sides and tugging ‘till someone falls down. Mr. Sorkin, you have such skill in helping us see ourselves, our foibles and our follies. In broad daylight, our cracks show. There is so much that is not pretty, not fit for prime time.

It would be one thing if we were honest with ourselves. Who are we? What do we value? Are justice and righteousness even important to us anymore? Are we willing to risk the kingdom for a passing spotlight? What is the sway of power over our own consciences? Where has entertainment become propaganda and hearts become stone?

Mr. Sorkin, it is now 2019. Time for pens to be up and writing – time to write hope and promise and goodness even as the thorns have grown around the castle. Sleeping Beauty awakes, a star rises in the east and wise people follow. New years come and new days begin. This is a new season and hope is never far from us. Help us write a glad story of a strong protagonist who seeks, risks, adapts and finds peace and a place of common good. For the sake of the Kingdom, let it be so.

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